By Chuck Ross
Leslie Moonves was annoyed. His top executive in charge of alternative programming, Ghen Maynard, wouldn’t stop bugging him about some cockamamie new show idea.
Mr. Maynard had already come into Mr. Moonves’ office telling him he’d just heard a great pitch. Mr. Moonves said, “OK, what is it?”
“Sixteen people, stranded on an island …,” Mr. Maynard began, Mr. Moonves said, relating the story on the “Charlie Rose” show several years ago.
“Before he could get two sentences out, I said, ‘Get outta here,'” Mr. Moonves told Mr. Rose. “‘This is the dumbest idea I ever heard, and it doesn’t belong on CBS. This is a cable show.’ A week later he comes back in and says, ‘Look, I’m telling you, this show is great. It’s produced by this guy who does ‘Eco-Challenge.”’ I said ‘No.’ He comes in a third time and says, ‘Please meet Mark Burnett. At least hear him out.’ I said, ‘OK, if you’re that sold on it.’
“Mark Burnett came in. He’s a great salesman and he had the show all worked out. I was still a little wary, which is why we put it on in the summer. We had full sponsorship, and I liked it, but I was still able to hedge my bet that if it was a total disaster that we could still make money,” Mr. Moonves said.
The show debuted May 31, 2000, and was called “Survivor.”
“I have three teenagers,” Mr. Moonves told Mr. Rose. “It was the first time that they came home and said, ‘Dad, my friends are watching CBS.’ For the first time we had the hip, new show that was unlike any else on television. … The first day I saw the ratings I said, ‘This is phenomenal. This could change the network.'”
Add in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which debuted in September 1996, and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which premiered in October 2000, and you have the tent poles that allowed Mr. Moonves to craft a schedule that thrust CBS from last place to first place. In the process those shows cemented Mr. Moonves’ place in TV history as a programmer extraordinaire, equal in status to such legendary TV executives as Brandon Tartikoff and Fred Silverman.
Since joining CBS in July 1995 as president of entertainment, Mr. Moonves’ star has shone brighter and brighter. Today he is the company’s president and CEO.
Here at TelevisionWeek, as we become an online-only publication beginning this week after 27 years as a print magazine and then a print-Web operation, we decided we wanted to honor someone in the TV industry who has defined the best of what TV has to offer. Someone whose career has become synonymous with what TV was, is and will become.
From his early days at Fox, to his celebrated work at Lorimar and then Warner Bros, and on to his already storied career at CBS, Mr. Moonves is almost singular as one who fits this bill. Thus we are pleased to announce that we’re honoring him with our TVWeek Lifetime Vision Award.
Just prior to moving to CBS, Mr. Moonves, as the top programmer at Warner Bros., had accomplished a remarkable feat: under his guidance the studio had 22 shows on the networks, including such powerhouses as “ER” and “Friends” at NBC. The next closest studio had less than a dozen shows on the air.
So when then-troubled CBS came calling, Mr. Moonves answered. He couldn’t imagine being more successful on the supply side than he had been, so the time was right to leave Warner Bros. And lure of being the person who actually scheduled the shows at one of the major networks was a dream come true.
But at first it wasn’t easy. There was chaos at CBS. Larry Tisch was in the midst of selling the company to Westinghouse.
“Believe it or not, we at Westinghouse really didn’t have the cash to do the deal,” says Lou Briskman, then part of the Westinghouse legal team and now CBS’ general counsel. “We had to agree to pay significant liquid damages if the deal fell apart. We closed the deal in August . Leslie and I soon became good friends. But I know it was hard for him at first. He didn’t like the shows CBS had picked for the upcoming fall, and couldn’t wait to make his own decisions.”
As Mr. Moonves told Charlie Rose in one of their four in-depth interviews over the years, “The first year and a half [at CBS] was probably the worst period in my professional career. I hated it. I left Warner Bros. and it was a fabulous place to work. We had “ER” and “Friends” and life was terrific and the bosses were great and I had my guys there and my team. CBS was pretty destitute at the time. It was really depressing.”
He said the experience taught him three things: “you can’t replace hard work; you can’t only look at next week but you have to look to next year and two years down the line and three years down the line. And three, whatever can go wrong will go wrong.”
Fortunately, soon things started to turn right. One of the biggest things that happened is that Mr. Moonves was finally able to recruit his team from Warner Bros. to come to CBS.
One of the hallmarks of Mr. Moonves’ management style is his concept of team. He talks about it all the time, and constantly gives credit to others for their ideas. Hand-in-hand with his belief that success–and failure–is a team effort, is his belief that the team, if assembled properly, becomes incredibly loyal unto itself.
Thus, as he has rightly noted, CBS under his tenure has been remarkably stable and there is little of the back-biting and bad-mouthing that is a common blood sport at some other networks.
For example, Mr. Moonves has lavished praise on current entertainment president Nina Tassler for developing the “CSI” franchise.
ABC was the first network to have heard the “CSI” pitch and turned it town. When it was then pitched to Ms. Tassler, working for Mr. Moonves as his head of drama, she worked hard to bring the idea to fruition. “I saw the pilot,” Mr. Moonves told Mr. Rose in one of their interviews. “Did I know we had a hit? No. And when I first saw the research it startled me.”
What had surprised him was that women loved the show and CBS didn’t know why. Finally they figured it out–the women “weren’t seeing it as a cop show, but as a puzzle, as a mystery.”
Ms. Tassler elaborates on Mr. Moonves team concept: “It translates to trust, and a highly functioning organization. We’re in sync creatively, so when the business and creative community walk through our doors they don’t have to penetrate layers and second guessing.”
The result, she says, is a “a very sound and effective process where, we think, the best shows make it to the air.”
She also talks about the loyalty factor.:”Leslie comes from the theater. I come from the theater in New York. Something that comes from that is a respect for the community and people who have your back. You can have robust and stimulating conversation without fear, without worries.”
Indeed, Mr. Moonves’ theater experience provides one of the keys to both his personality and his success. He started out as an actor.
“I studied with a great acting teacher, Sandy Meisner,” Mr. Moonves told Mr. Rose. “I studied for two years at the Neighborhood Playhouse. And I remember something he said: You should only be an actor if it’s the only thing you can do. That was always in the back of my head. I thought, ‘There are other things you can do besides act.’ In addition, the actor’s lifestyle was driving me crazy. I felt that I couldn’t control anything in my life. I felt I could be a good actor, but never a great actor. And I wanted to do something I could be great at.
“I started producing some plays and I realized I enjoyed the activity of doing that. I enjoyed being in control. My enemies would say that’s a big part of me. And I enjoyed the productivity of seeing a piece of work on its feet. What I discovered: I don’t have to be acting to get my creative juices flowing.”
As Mr. Moonves has moved up the corporate ladder, he’s been able to keep his core values and philosophy. He’s not afraid to admit that he’s not an MBA, and as a consequence he compensates “by asking lots and lots of questions,” says Mr. Briskman, the CBS counsel. “He’s very good at it. Whether it’s a legal strategy or a financing position. We do things as a team. He asks the team that has knowledge in a particular area for their counsel, but he’s absolutely hands on himself and makes the final decisions. And he’s still very involved in programming.”
Programming is Mr. Moonves’ true love. And that’s particularly important at CBS, which is almost singular among media companies with its network-centric business plan. Mr. Moonves also is fully engaged in conversations about where TV is going. He’s well aware that consumers more and more want to consume media on their own terms. Recognition of this was one of the reasons CBS bought CNET, and has built up its consumer TV site, TV.com.
He believes that traditional TV is still the Big Kahuna, and a number of recent research studies indicate that he’s right. It’s where the vast majority of the viewers are, and it’s where the vast majority of the ad dollars are spent.
One of the reasons Mr. Moonves has been so successful is the nature of his personality. As he once told Mr. Rose, “I’m rarely blindsided by someone trying to screw me because I’ve usually anticipated that ahead of time.”
Mr. Rose then asked him about his well-known ability to focus on problems to find solutions and how his additional responsibilities as CEO of CBS Corp. affected that.
True to his TV-programming heart, Mr. Moonves said, wistfully, “I miss the focus when you could worry about just a few television shows. It was simpler. It was more fun.”
As much as Mr. Moonves may experience nostalgia for those days focused solely on programming, his mastery of that realm fates him to play on a larger stage.